The early tongkangs were about 20 ton burthen or less; they were propelled by about ten rowers and guided by a steersman. Long punt poles were used to propel them in shallower water. The size of the tongkang increased around 1860.
The tongkang was one of the two traditional Malay ships using Junk Rig with local hulls instead of the Chinese Junk hull. Its hull design was more reminiscent of the dhow type used in South Asia and Western Asia than to the common Chinese or Far-eastern type. Besides the Junk Rig, the ketch rig was also used on the tongkang. The last tongkangs in Singapore were towed by a motorised launch.
Tongkangs in Singapore
There are references to the activity of these boats in Singapore, where a Chinese document, refers to the Southern bank around Read Bridge area, as cha chun tau (柴船头), meaning "jetty for boats carrying firewood". Small tongkangs carrying firewood from Indonesia berthed at this jetty. The firewood trade was primarily a Teochew enterprise.
The steel truss of Alkaff Bridge (阿卡夫桥) is shaped like a tongkang in remembrance of this type of boat, so important to the economy of old Singapore. The bridge is 55 metres in length and weighs about 230 tonnes.
Another boat used in the Singapore River along with the tongkang was the twakow. These traditional vessels began to disappear around the 1930s, following the introduction of motor-powered boats and contemporary-type lighters.
- Stephen Dobbs , Tongkang, twakow, and lightermen: a people's history of the Singapore River. Sojourn. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Singapore. Vol. 9. No. 2. 1994. pp. 269-76.
- H. Warington Smyth, Mast & Sail in Europe & Asia, Chapter 10
- Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River, Appendix 1 - "Lighter craft of the Singapore River"
- Pictures of moored tongkangs and twakows in old Singapore
- Junk and Advanced Cruising Rig Association
- Stephen Dobbs , Urban Redevelopment and the Forced Eviction of Lighters from the Singapore River Causes and impact of the "eviction" of the lighterage industry from the Singapore River in 1983.
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